“The Timekeeper’s Son,” by Sara Baker

Sara Baker

Reviewed by Molly Hurley Moran

Set in the fictional Southern town of Milledge, Georgia, Sara Baker’s luminous novel The Timekeeper’s Son moves beyond the issues and conflicts usually associated with such settings to embrace more universal themes concerning human connection, forgiveness, and grace.  The plot revolves around two families who are unknown to each other at the novel’s outset but whose lives become interconnected as the result of a tragic accident.

Meg and David Masters are a liberal couple in late middle age, still driven by the ideals of their youths in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  David’s social conscience was formed as a result of growing up in one of the few Jewish families in Milledge and having as his best friend an African-American boy.  The racial prejudice he witnessed motivated him to become a lawyer and community activist, working zealously for the marginalized of the town.  His wife, Meg, is equally idealistic.  She teaches in a Title I elementary school, where she tirelessly helps her students not only with their academic challenges but also with the difficult family situations many of them have.  Because of their work, David and Meg are well-known in the town and well-respected by other liberals and by the African-American community.

Helen and Hal Lovejoy are a more reclusive couple.  Hal’s life revolves around his job of repairing old clocks.  He has a small, old-fashioned-looking shop, with just one or two employees and not many customers.  Helen is a semi-retired nurse.  She devotes most of her time to homemaking and to mothering their sensitive son, Josh.  An academically struggling high school junior, Josh finds refuge in drama club and amateur film-making.  The quiet of the Lovejoys’ life and the idealism of the Masters’ life are rocked when the car Josh is driving home from a film rehearsal late one night accidentally hits David Masters, out for a moonlight jog, sending him into a prolonged coma and altering the course of the characters’ lives in ways that will bring anguish but also, ultimately, grace.

The novel is engaging on a number of levels.  The plot alone keeps the reader riveted: Will David survive?  And if so, will he ever come out of the coma that has thrust his wife’s life into limbo and left the town’s downtrodden without a champion?  If he doesn’t, will Josh be charged with manslaughter?  And will the fact that Josh, who is basically a good kid, had succumbed to peer pressure and smoked a few puffs of marijuana the night of the accident result in a harsher sentence?  Will this one mistake in judgment thereby ruin his future and thwart his dream of making something of his life by becoming a film-maker, as well as destroy his parents’ marriage, already fraying from their conflicting views of how to handle their son?

But more than its gripping plot, it is the novel’s exploration of character that holds the reader.  Ms. Baker narrates The Timekeeper’s Son in a series of vignettes, moving deftly among the points of view of the main characters.  In precise, often lyrical prose, she renders their inner lives, particularly the private dreams and disappointments they harbor.

Hal, for example, has since childhood been fascinated with old clocks and with the history of timekeeping.  He loves the solitary absorption of his work, tinkering with the innards of clocks all day in his shop: “Was there anything more comforting than the ticking of a clock, the slow majestic ringing of the hours?  The sense of order imposed on the day as it unfurled?  Let the rest of the world have their clock radios, their cheap plastic digital watches.  Here in this shop, there would be order, the stately progression of hours marked properly by the singular tickings and strikings, each one as identifiable as birdsong.”  But he is haunted by a sense of failure, because a learning disability prevented him from completing his degree in mechanical engineering and hence making a name for himself in the field of horology.  Seeing his son, whom he loves dearly, suffering from the same learning difficulty, Hal pushes him to try harder in school so that Josh won’t end up with similar regrets.   This pushing, however, is interpreted by Helen as hardness on Hal’s part and by Josh as his father’s scorn for and disappointment in him.

Helen too has a complex inner life that she withholds from others.  In her youth she was an aspiring artist but gave up painting when Josh was born.  Recently, she has begun painting again secretly, while Hal is at work and Josh at school.  She alternates between blissful hours of absorption—“She felt alive, every fiber of her being concentrated on this moment, this sketch”—and sudden onslaughts of discouragement when she sees her work as cramped and amateurish.  “Neither Josh nor Hal had any idea of her passionate agony; when they came home, dinner was always ready, and she was there, listening to the stories of their days, as if she happily had no other function.”

Josh’s passion is film-making, the one thing he feels he is good at, the one thing that allows him to escape from the crushing sense of failure he feels in the classroom and in his father’s presence.  Like Hal with his clocks and Helen with her painting, Josh becomes completely absorbed when he is working on a film or looking at the world with the eyes of a film-maker.  Walking to school one morning after a tension-filled breakfast with his dad, Josh senses his spirits lifting as he notices “the patterns of light and dark [that] made the suburban street seem mysterious and inviting.  A cat slinked by, and Josh framed it in his imaginary camera, one of those throwaway shots he loved so much in Chaplin’s films.”  He yearns to tell his dad about such moments but then stops himself: “Ha!  It would just irritate him.”

Although Meg and David have more open communication in their marriage (that is, until his accident) than do Helen and Hal, Meg bears a secret grief: that she never had children.  In the early years they tried to conceive but ran into problems with infertility.  Meg wanted to adopt, but David was adamantly opposed and she eventually conceded.  However, her yearning slumbers inside her, rearing its head at unexpected moments.  For instance, at Josh’s trial after the accident—for DUI marijuana, reckless driving, endangerment, and speeding charges—Meg observes the boy “glancing anxiously at his mother, who gave him a slight nod, a ghost of a smile.  Meg could imagine the nods and smiles she might have given him all along—his first drawings, his first ride on a two-wheeler, his first crush.  .  .  .  A mother and son.  The old pang came back to her, the persistent haunting emptiness .  .  .”

Most of the time, however, Meg is able to fill this emptiness with her attachment to the children she teaches.  As Ms. Baker does with Hal’s deep interest in horology, Helen’s in painting, and Josh’s in film-making, she renders palpably the excitement Meg feels about her teaching: “Meg usually got to school early.  She liked the quiet of the classroom before the storm of kids hit, liked to putter and straighten, bringing in some new item to share with them—a feather or shell or cicada skin or perfect transparent casting of the insect with all its parts.  .  .  .  She anticipated her students in their essences, free of the green snotty noses, the red-rimmed eyes, their fidgeting inattention.  She sat in stillness, the weak sun coming in the grimy window, the coffee warm in her hand, and she was filled with love.”

In rendering David’s inner life the author is faced with a challenge since this character is in a coma throughout most of the novel.  Nonetheless, Ms. Baker presents a convincing portrait of a mind that is in this state.  Although he appears to others to be totally unconscious, David drifts in and out of a blurry consciousness, at times sensing the presence and the essence of Meg—“He could feel it now, her emotional weariness.  She felt everything deeply, couldn’t leave things behind, so that when she came, it felt to him as if a whole roomful of people were there—the children she taught, her friends, the cashier she knew from Bell’s”—and then blanking out or drifting into a surreal dream in which he confuses Meg with the singer Peggy Lee, whose albums he’d spent hours listening to as a boy.  The singer’s soulful, sympathetic presence triggers sustained flashbacks in which David relives the painful episodes of his youth that formed his sharp awareness of social and racial injustice.

One effect of the roving points of view approach that Ms. Baker employs to narrate the novel is an emphasis on the gulfs between characters.  We see that they often feel misunderstood by those closest to them and often misinterpret the motives of those others.  The characters, then, seem to be essentially alone, emotionally cut off.  However, in the course of the novel, as they struggle with the chaos the tragic accident has wrought in their lives, the characters begin to grow and to break out of their emotional isolation.  For instance, Josh at first balks at the after-school community service work the court requires him to do, feeling appalled at the sight of the severely handicapped children he will be expected to clean and assist at the Good Shepherd Home for Special Needs Children.  But he gradually discovers he has a talent for working with such kids and forges a special bond with one particular little boy, whose utterance “I your friend” at a moment when Josh is feeling particularly low causes Josh’s spirits to soar.

Other characters are similarly helped by such unlikely friendships.  For example, Meg, upon learning that the boy who ran into David had been smoking pot, is furious and forms an immediate prejudice against the boy’s family, imagining “a slovenly, neglectful mother, someone who smoked and racked up debt buying shoddy goods on the shopping channel.  The father watched NASCAR and drank beer and didn’t bother to vote.  The boy had been brought up on video games and fast food, was a troublemaker, a druggie, a punk.”  But after seeing the three of them at the trial, she begins to revise this view and over time her stereotyping gives way to sympathy and understanding.  She eventually forms a friendship with Hal and through her counseling, Hal becomes more sensitive to his son’s needs.  And Helen forms a friendship with the teacher of an art course she enrolls in who ultimately helps her to see how she has closed herself off from Hal and hardened into a rigid way of regarding him.  With this insight, she begins to find her way back to the closeness they had had in the early years of their marriage.

The characters’ trajectories, then, are from isolation to friendship and bonding—the classic arc of comedy, in the tradition of the great nineteenth-century novels of manners and morals.  Although The Timekeeper’s Son does not end with all the characters’ problems neatly resolved, it does end with a quiet celebration of the transformative power of forgiveness and human connection.

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